The number one human need after survival is to seek connection. It is a biological imperative that this happen through attachment, and it makes sense when we consider that the infant sees the world first in the eyes of their mother and father. This gaze back and forth creates the attachment and the connection and contributes to how well we will connect later in life with others. I have come to see that there are two currencies we use in relationship with others. The first is power. “Because I said so.” The other is intimacy. To be fair these are very broad categories, and the subject of a different article, but suffice to say that when I am doing marriage counseling, the currency shows itself within the first 5 minutes. If it is power, the couple is stuck in a drama that will never end until there is a winner. And if there is a winner, then both lose. When doing couples therapy in this situation, they don’t want solution, they want the counselor to validate their side of the competition. On the other hand, if the game can be shifted to intimacy (which must begin with boundaries) the relationship can actually function as a personal growth vehicle that will propel both individuals (and the relationship!) to a healthier place. We move into the world of relationship with varying skills and abilities and there are 7 guidelines that will help us move towards intimacy and better connection.
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1. Each person views the other person realistically.
One visual we use when we teach boundaries is to imagine yourself inside a Hula Hoop. If it is inside your Hula Hoop, then it is your business. If it is outside your Hula Hoop it is none of your business. So- who they are and how they are, is also none of our business and we are freed up to see them as they are. From here we can meet people where they are without having to believe they need to be something they are not.
Many of us will project onto another our expectations of who we need them to be over who they really are. I could never begin to love my wife for who she is until I go past who I needed her to be. And that had NOTHING to do with her. And by the way, I was completely unconscious to it. How could I possibly see her realistically when I am wrapped up in how I need her to be (fill in the blank) so I will feel (fill in the blank B) about myself. It does take a third person view of self to begin to recognize it but if you have somehow found your way to this article, you have the level of consciousness necessary to see and work on this dynamic.
2. Each person takes responsibility for their own growth.
We are responsible for our own feelings. You are not responsible for mine and I am not responsible for yours. Similarly we are responsible for getting our own needs met. In a bounded world, as an adult, it will be up to me to grow. My friend can choose not to. My partner can choose to dive in deeper than me. But I get to have my own back and I am in charge of my own growth. I often see a resistance to this idea when people point at someone near them and try to claim that the other is hindering their growth and keeping them from it. This is power we have handed away to the other. Recovery and personal growth is about reclaiming this power and living in action, not reaction to other people. The only true victims (outside of a car-jacking) are children and animals. The rest of us are volunteers. The good news is that no-one can limit our growth. One unconscious fear many have is fi they feel they are beginning to out-grow their partner or friend. That may be concerning for the relationship but it does not have to hinder the growth or become an excuse to quit growing.
3. Each person focuses on solutions to problems.
In healthy relationships people focus more on process than they do on content. If we focus on the problem we grind away at the granular detail of what happened and why we must be offended by it. To be sure, recognition of a problem is a necessary first step but to hang out here keeps us in the problem. In this stuckness comes a familiar dance. It is so familiar to some that this is where they are most comfortable. I have met people who seem to only be happy when they are unhappy. They almost demand that a problem be found in a situation or a relationship to maintain their focus there. If we give up the need to blame and judge we will move to solution faster. Judgement in and of itself is not bad. Judgements are necessary for life. Where the problem resides is when we use judgement to judge another as “less-than” and we go one-up to them. If they are the source of the problem we can maintain focus on them, they will be one-down in our mind and one more time we have shifted the relationship to one of power, not intimacy. The other gift or curse (they are synonyms) of focusing on the problem and the creator of it is that we can maintain our victim status. Woe is me in this situation. And in the victim position we can hold onto our victim anger (resentment) and feel one-up to them.
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4. Each person supports the other without rescuing.
In Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled, he devotes an entire chapter on “Love Defined.” In it he offers an extremely functional definition of love. Love is the extension of ourselves for the purpose of nurturing another’s or our own spiritual growth. It is the work we do to help another grow. And sometimes that is really hard. I get confused about where the line is between nurturing their growth and enabling them. If I do your work for you it can become rescuing. And you learn little to nothing and I end up burdening me and the relationship. I usually do it out of an inability to tolerate your uncomfortability as you struggle with whatever it is, so I do it for you . So it really wasn’t for you to begin with. Support however, looks like encouragement. Like standing with someone doing something hard. Support lets them know we have there back but we don’t do it for them. And when they get in a pickle we don’t necessarily pull them out of their mess. We let them know they are not alone in the mess but we don’t fix it for them. Two caveats. First there is no reason we cannot always be kind and second, when somebody gets into the aforementioned pickle it is not supportive to taunt them about it (or say I told you so, or gloat in the myriad of subtle ways we know how to, without doing it directly.)
5. Each person can accept collaboration.
Years ago, before I had partnered with Dr. Dina Hijazi, she approached me about doing a joint presentation on health and wellness in the Dallas Community. We both regularly presented at this venue but always as an individual effort. I declined her offer immediately. It was not in my comfort zone to either share or work with someone else on something like that. (I was in private practice for a reason!). Her comment was to the effect that it would be fun to collaborate and that exercise would lead to a greater creativity. And there was just a bit of a challenge in her response. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and ultimately agreed to do the joint presentation with her. And she was right. The creativity went way up between us and the synergy created a more dynamic presentation.
This idea that we can accept collaboration is tied to the next point about celebrating differences. Dr. Hijazi is a Psychologist, and my background is from theology. If I can make room, that difference in background shows itself in an enhanced teamwork.
6. Each person celebrates the differences between them.
Self-esteem is inherent. We are born with it. Sometimes we become detached from it if we are shown or told we are not important. It is not valid, we truly do have inherent worth, but don’t always recognize it. If we don’t value ourselves we are going to have difficulty valuing another. We may in fact focus on the difference in a negative way and begin (even unconsciously) demanding the other be like us. We have been taught that we live in a finite world that has to constantly be weighed and measured. Is there enough money, is there enough time, is there enough for me? And in this model we begin to judge. If there is not enough to go around we may begin to try to take it from someone else. (I want my share of the credit if we do something together!). We will even begin focusing on the differences in a negative way. However, if we learn to enjoy the differences and realize we are OK (not less than) the relationship becomes richer. This captures the idea of self-differentiation. If we are comfortable with who we are, it is not a threat for another to be different from us. In fact we begin to celebrate it. To be sure we will want to be on the same page when it comes to values, but our differences elsewhere make us more interesting, not threatening.
Our strengths don’t make be better than, our weaknesses don’t make us less than, they simply make us different. And this makes us more interesting to each other.
7. Each person communicates simply and directly.
One caution here, it sounds slightly easier than it is! To do this, I must be very clear with myself about what I am communicating about. Often we speak based on what we are feeling in light of the other person’s behavior. This is best navigated with “I” statements. Most of us find it easier to focus on the other person’s behavior and how that is impacting us. If we bring it back to us, and what is going on with me, communication will speed up and actually becomes easier. I truly want to be heard, so it is best for me to communicate in a way that makes it easy to hear. Stick to what is going on with me and invite dialog to get the other’s perspective. Intimacy carries two sides: Sharing to be known, without attachment to the outcome and listening with curiosity to find out who the other person is, without defensiveness. “You never take me out anymore” is going to be harder to hear than “I miss the fun we have when we go to the movies-would you like to go see one this weekend?” The second statement, while longer, is more authentic and direct.
We don’t make the other person guess what is going on with us.
This growth towards intimacy is more fun when both are playing but we don’t ever really have control of another person. The good news in that statement is that no one can limit our growth. Recovery is living our life in action, not reaction. This means we can practice these principles with all people and begin to work towards closer relationships. As we withdraw and reflect after an exchange (this is called the clinical method of learning), we can evaluate our behavior in light of these principles, amend them, and try again.